/ 9 June 2009

Shell pays out $15,5m over Saro-Wiwa killing

The oil giant Shell has agreed to pay $15,5-million in settlement of a legal action in which it was accused of having collaborated in the execution of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Ogoni tribe of southern Nigeria.

The settlement is one of the largest payouts agreed by a multinational corporation charged with human rights violations. Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary SPDC have not conceded to or admitted any of the allegations, pleading innocent to all the civil charges.

But the scale of the payment is being seen by experts in human rights law as a step towards international businesses being made accountable for their environmental and social actions.

In the past, it has been notoriously difficult to bring and sustain legal actions involving powerful corporations.

The settlement follows three weeks of intensive negotiation between the plaintiffs, who largely consisted of relatives of the executed Ogoni nine, and Shell. ”We spent a lot of time trying to put together something that would be acceptable to both sides, and our people are very pleased with the result,” said Anthony DiCaprio, the lead lawyer for the Ogoni side working with the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights.

The deal marks the end of a 14-year personal journey for Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, son of the executed leader. Among the other plaintiffs was Karalolo Kogbara who lost an arm after she was shot by Nigerian troops when she protested against the bulldozing of her village in 1993 to make way for a Shell oil pipeline.

Though the settlement cannot compensate for individual losses of loved ones or livelihoods, the plaintiffs will now be able to pay all legal fees and costs. A sum of $5-million will be used to set up a trust called Kiisi — meaning ”progress” in the Ogoni Gokana language — to support educational, community and other initiatives in the Niger delta.

Shell has consistently denied any involvement in the decision of the Nigerian regime to execute the Ogoni nine. It argues it tried to plead with the government to grant clemency to the prisoners but to its great sadness the appeal went unheard.

Supporters of the legal action said the fact that Shell had walked away from the trial suggested the company had been anxious about the evidence that would have been presented to the jury had it gone ahead.

Stephen Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International, said Shell ”knew the case was overwhelming against them, so they bought their way out of a trial”.

Among the documents that were lodged with the New York court was a 1994 letter from Shell in which it agreed to pay a unit of the Nigerian army for services rendered. The unit had retrieved one of the company’s fire trucks from the village of Korokoro — an action that according to reports at the time left one Ogoni man dead and two wounded. Shell wrote that it was making the payment ”as a show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition in future assignments”.

Shell’s involvement in the oil-rich Niger delta extends back to 1958. It remains the largest oil business in Nigeria, owning some 90 oil fields across the country.

The Ogoni people began non-violent agitation against Shell from the early 1990s, under the leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his organisation Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Mosop has long complained that the oil giant was responsible for devastating the ecosystem of the delta upon which Ogoni farmers and fishermen depend, through a combination of oil spills, forest clearance for pipelines and the burning of gas from oil-wells known as gas flares.

Human rights experts believe the settlement will have a substantial impact on other multinational corporations. DiCaprio predicted it would ”encourage companies to seriously consider the social and environmental impact their operations may have on a community or face the possibility of a suit”. – guardian.co.uk